I’m not quite sure why but come the weekend, holiday, or midweek getaway, my tendency is to rush off to some far distant spot, often taking hours to get there, or even longer given the sheer vastness of the continent-sized country that is the United States of America. But on Sunday the 6th of October 2013 Kris and I made the decision to be tourists in our own town for a day, and forsaking the usual hour or two (three or more) in the car we pointed the Infinity in the direction of Aspen with the novel plan of taking the Gondola to the top of Ajax (Aspen Mountain) so as to hike our way down through a couple of inches of freshly lain early autumn snow.
The weather, as it often is around this time of year, was nothing less than sensational as we polished off a late breakfast, lingered on a brief stroll around the sculpture garden, and as noon approached climbed into the car and pointed it in the direction of Aspen… eight miles or so to the south of us.
Hooking a sharp right at the end of the drive we picked up Upper River Drive and followed its familiar course south.
Downtown Woody Creek came and went.
After a couple of miles we climbed up on the mesa and made our way along the rolling plain of McClain Flats.
The weather was certainly playing its part and as we rolled along I felt compelled to stop for a quick pic of the moment – so I snapped this shot of the Infinity posed against the backdrop of the Snowmass Ski Area, Capitol Peak, a rustic split rail fence and meadow.
From this vantage point our target, Ajax Mountain, is accompanied by Highland’s Ski Area, though in reality they lay several miles distant from one another.
As we drop down to the slaughterhouse bridge on the Roaring Fork River the mountain begins to fill the horizon
Up and along Cemetery lane we have now entered Aspen proper.
Once we have parked and changed our footwear for the hike we head towards the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (as I call it) where it becomes immediately obvious that we were not the only ones with the idea to ride the Gondola up to the Sundeck.
In fact, it appears there are hordes climbing and descending the familiar concrete staircase.
This of course is the scene for the line drawing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ that I drew back in February of this year. The scene was sketched during a one hour period on a Friday lunchtime and my plan is to carve a bas relief in pure white Colorado Yule Marble before the year is through.
Kris is a little dismayed by the lines and a brief discussion ensues about the wisdom of hiking up and taking the Gondola down, but the ladies in charge of loading the buckets are well on top of their game and the intimidating line of tourists from all points of the globe is whittled down with impressive efficiency.
Before we know it we are being beckoned to our own car, and within the minute are whooshed out of the steel and glass building and whisked up the steep mountainside.
Inside the car we are all chummy, chatting with our new compatriots as if we’d know them all our lives, suspending our yacking just long enough to pose for a quick snap!
As Aspen falls behind in our wake the cars climb higher and higher…
…and higher and higher!
By the time we climb out at the top we have gained an elevation of 11,212 ft.
We take our place among the crowds of tourist lining up to be photographed against the backdrop of the Elk Mountain Range and I energetically point out the Highland Bowl to anyone who will listen.
Well, why not? I’ve hiked it, skied it, loved it and hated it – all at the same time! If there is a more magical spot on Earth I’ve yet to see it – or ski it for that matter.
Inside the Sundeck Aspen’s early ski pioneers and all-around legends beam down from their hallowed perches scattered around the new barn-like building. I’ve only seen black and white photos of the beautiful building they knew as The Sundeck, and what they would make of the Greyhound Bus Station-like bunker that occupies the spot today is anyone’s guess, but they look happy enough in their snazzy pre-Gortex ski ware.
Boy, did they look the part or what?
I allow myself a few moments to reflect on the utter loss of style in our modern world, snap a monochrome photo of Kris to mark the occasion – looking che-stylish it must be said – before we exit the building, escape the madding crowd, and plot our hike to the foot of the mountain.
Immediately outside the bus sta… I mean Sundeck we are greeted by a familiar sight – perhaps even familiar to some of those black and white legends adorning the walls of the aforementioned food court. Its the Ski Patrol building, and if I were a betting man I’d say its days are numbered given the fact that it looks charmingly like something straight out of the 1960s.
Yes, Aspen Mountain (“Ajax”) is steep! There really is no easy way down – but who would want it any different? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve whooshed down this slope (its actually clearly visible in the first photo at the top, extreme right-hand side) so it felt slightly odd and surreal to pick my way down like an old man with a stick, but pick my way down I did. And you know what? It was completely lovely. We were in absolutely no hurry whatsoever and stopped often to simply admire views that I simply whizzed past when strapped to a pair of skies.
Down, down down we went.
Past the legendary Bonnie’s Restaurant – scene of some truly epic apple strudel interludes.
Down through the daunting Spa Gulch.
Suddenly the Gondola pops up from behind the rim of Bell Mountain.
Bloody Hell, those cars are really, really WAY up there! I mean, a long long way up there. Sheesh!
Eventually downtown Aspen appears as if by magic. Peering down from the precipitous edge of the aptly named Niagara double black diamond run it looks for all the world as if you (or the Legends of Sundeck fame) could simply leap and take off right into the heart of town.
Foregoing the hustle and bustle of the new Aspen residing at the base of the Gondola we choose instead to retrace our way back to the car via the old atmospheric Lift 1A. Believe it or not these ancient looking (beautifully footrest and guardrail-free) old chairs actually replaced an even older ski lift that at one time held the record as the longest lift in THE WORLD!
But we are in no hurry to reacquaint ourselves with our car and so we take in a slight detour whereby we can look over the Aspen skyline and take in the astonishing array of Fall colors.
To be truthful we find ourselves more than a little reluctant to finally come down… but the thought of the fish and chip dinner that awaits us on our return to Woody Creek proves more than we can bear, and so we ever so slowly pick our way down the final few feet and reenter civilization in the form of the ‘Old’ Aspen – currently awaiting its turn to be ‘developed’.
What the place must have been like, or felt like, when these rusty old seats provided the gateway to the old sundeck I can only imagine. I’ve heard lots of stories about the camaraderie that abounded back then, and this little backwater of Aspen sure gives off a thoroughly authentic air, but however long we linger there we can’t bring back the past, and so with an ever increasing hunger growling away in our stomachs we resign ourselves to the sad fact that our little adventure is over and make our way the few feet to our parked car.
As we change out of our boots the conversation evolves around the question as to why we don’t do this sort of thing more often – why we don’t choose to play tourist in our own town?
Truth is, I’m not really sure why we don’t. Slipping on my comfy driving shoes I vow – vow with all my heart – I won’t leave it as long again to drive the eight miles into town and take full advantage of this astonishingly beautiful place we call Aspen.
Thanks for coming along with us on our little adventure. Hope you can join us next time.